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My mom’s eggplant sauce

10 minutes

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Mary’s famed ragout is salted with the pains and joys of her family life

If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps a recipe can contain a lifetime of memories. As diced eggplant, chopped garlic and creamy passata come together on a stovetop in a New York City apartment, so too do decades of recollections of one woman’s trauma and struggle. The cook, Mary Feinberg, is directed by her daughter, the writer and filmmaker Shaina Feinberg. Eager to connect after the death of her father, Shaina finds her mother willing to open up only when she’s being recorded. And so, cameras rolling, she chronicles, step-by-step, the making of her famed ragout, capturing Mary’s great care and expertise as her dish journeys from hob to table. But, as Mary gradually reveals, there’s more to the food than just a warm family ritual – it’s also connected to some of the darker moments of her life.

Mary’s eggplant sauce intertwines with the emotional abuse of her cheating, domineering first husband; the controlling and manipulative behaviours of her mother; her resolve to defy both of them by pursuing a divorce; and the happier years she enjoyed with her second husband, Shaina’s father. As Mary recalls the trauma of her past, Shaina’s camerawork draws out every delicious detail, peering closely at the generous salting of the eggplant, and lingering as herbs are scattered over a simmering pot of sauce.

Throughout the film, the details of Mary’s past are countered by the love and fondness between mother and daughter. Shaina giggles (off-screen) at Mary’s embellished bustling about the apartment, and directs her to act natural rather than playing to the camera. These moments of ‘behind-the-scenes’ interactions are more than just comedic relief – they offer a meaningful glimpse into the more healthy family dynamic Mary would ultimately find after resolving to leave her troubled first marriage. Further, they seem to hint at the perhaps inevitable tensions and small frustrations that arise even in loving families.

In an online presentation in 2021, Shaina recounted her impulse to tell the eggplant sauce story after interviewing Mary for a pre-pandemic film project. What evolved was an artful reflection on the innate connections – and tensions – between generations of mothers and daughters. And although Shaina and her mother act out their own small struggle for control in the film, it’s also a loving tribute, inspired by Shaina’s desire to propel Mary’s sense of fulfilment during her autumnal years after sacrificing so much of herself to others.

The resulting short adds a wry, honest portrait of women, family and food to Shaina’s catalogue of short films, which share a through-line of eccentric characters and conversations, playful dark humour and micro-budget sensibilities. In the aforementioned online presentation, Shaina describes the liberation she felt in creating a film without (often male) film-industry gatekeepers offering notes, which gave her ‘this real freedom’. It’s an apt reflection on a film that’s, perhaps above all, about finding happiness through defying expectations.

Written by Alice Marks

Director: Shaina Feinberg

Producer: Elisabeth Durkin